When Surjit (‘Bonbon’) Nongmeikapam and his four Manipuri companions walked off the stage of Kalakshetra Foundation in Chennai, they were wreathed with smiles. Deservedly so: they had just won the 2014 Prakriti Excellence in Contemporary Dance Award (PECDA), selected by an international jury from a list of 16 groups from across the country. Competition for the top spot was steep, but Nongmeikapam’s Nerves — a theatrically effective and choreographically inventive piece that freely deployed folk, martial arts and contemporary movement without being tied to any particular style — went down well with both the audience and the jury, who rated it highly for concept, composition, performance and use of sound and scenography. The judges also praised its inventive use of props — shoes suspended on strings, swinging like dive bombs; elastic red ropes snagging the dancers like netted fish — and approvingly commented that the work managed to be “political, but not didactic”.
The Rs. 500,000 award amounts to more than just kudos and cash though: it is an opportunity. The money goes towards a mentorship programme with London-based internationally-renowned Akram Khan Company, and on developing a finished choreographic work to tour with the Park’s New Festival in 2016.
“This is more than a competition,” agreed Nongmeikapam, “It is a chance to share work with other artists from around the country. And it’s not just a prize for me, but a way to develop contemporary dance in Manipur, and gain exposure for it.”
Two secondary prizes — a month’s residency at the Attakkalari Centre for Movement Arts in Bengaluru, together with a presentation at Attakkalari’s biannual festival in February 2015 — were also awarded. One went to Kolkata-based Prasanna Saikia for Mind Diabolique, an intense, finely crafted study in anxiety and uncertainty which made particularly effective use of electronic sound and abstract screen projections.
The other went to Mumbai-based Mehneer Sudan for 8/Women in Love, an introspective, subtly-inflected evocation of love’s many faces in which a beautifully realised film backdrop (by Supriya Nayak) served as a frame for a series of choreographic cameos. The jury also gave a special commendation for performance to Diya Naidu from Bengaluru, for her full-bodied work-in-progress Red Dress Waali Ladki.
For Sudan, an entrant in the previous PECDA award in 2012, the award represented “a real opportunity at this time in my career. But,” she added, “I also think PECDA itself serves as a place for contemporary dancers to meet and share ideas.”
Saikia agreed. “The award is an inspiration for me to go forward,” he said, “But PECDA is also a generous platform for contemporary dance. It will help enhance the contemporary scene in India, provided it goes further in networking and reaching out to different parts of India to tap fresh talents and energy.”
That certainly aligns with the intentions of the organisers. Founded and directed by Ranvir Shah of Prakriti Foundation, with Paris-based dance producer Karthika Naïr as artistic director, PECDA was launched in 2012 as a biannual, open-entry competition, unaffiliated to any other dance institution, and designed not merely to showcase work but to act as a fillip for the development of the still small and scattered contemporary dance scene in India. There were more entrants this year than in 2012, covering a wider range of approaches and achieving a higher overall standard — so although it is early days yet, the future looks promising.
Interestingly, this year PECDA has also been generously supported by Kalakshetra, a bastion of classical dance, who gave accommodation to the entrants and provided the auditorium for the competition showcase itself. It was certainly strange to witness the idiosyncrasies, transgressions and improprieties that contemporary dance permits acted out upon the Kalakshetra stage, but also curiously satisfying.